Magazine article The Spectator

Classical Influences

Magazine article The Spectator

Classical Influences

Article excerpt

At the turn of the 20th century, the classical tradition of Western music could look back on a continuous evolutionary cycle that stretched back to plainsong. But there was also a sense that this great tradition was reaching a dead end, reflected in Debussy's non-functional harmony, Skriabin's attempt to find a new harmonic system and Schoenberg's revolt against tonality -- 'composition with twelve notes' -- that put an end to hundreds of years of music devoted to the dramatic-expressive ideal.

The conflict between Brahms and Wagner was pulling apart the symphonic tradition: Brahms (considered a conservative) remained true to standard musical forms (the sonata, the string quartet, the symphony) while Wagner (deemed the revolutionary) was moving towards more ambitious musical forms and a use of chromaticism that seemed to threaten the tonal system itself.

There was widespread belief that 'the tradition' was now stifling creativity, particularly in France, where the arrival of jazz was seen as a breath of fresh air and whose vitality and exuberance brought something new to European art. The members of Les Nouveaux Jeunes, or as they later became known Les Six -- composers Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre and their unofficial and mischievous 'godfather' Erik Satie -- all shared a fascination with this new music, which provided them with a source of inspiration in their own works, where they 'fused art and modern life'.

Fast-forward to the beginning of the 21st century, where instead of forward-looking classical musicians looking towards jazz, forward-looking young European jazz musicians are looking towards classical. And, just like their predecessors a century ago, they too believe that their tradition's overpowering legacy is freezing current practice.

Yet jazz musicians have drawn on classical music since jazz's very beginnings, so what's new this time? Well, today most jazz departments and classical departments in American universities and conservatories are often self-contained worlds where never the twain shall meet. In contrast, most European jazz institutions insist that their students undertake parallel classical studies.

'Most European jazz musicians have a thorough training in classical music, ' says Wouter Turkenburg, head of jazz studies at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.

'Almost every jazz school in Europe puts an important emphasis on learning how to play classical music. If any of my students fail the classical exams it is hard for them to continue their study. …

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